Most people don’t understand autism. The word itself is an umbrella term, referring to a complex spectrum of developmental disorders. Some forms are more severe than others, but there is a common thread that runs among the spectrum.
A typical person with autism might find it harder to socially interact and communicate with ‘neurotypical’ people. (People who do not have autism.)
Unfortunately, in the general confusion around what autism is, stigmas and negative stereotypes have influenced how society views it. The result is that, of the approximately 700,000 people living in Britain diagnosed with some form of autism, a scant 16% of them have full-time employment.
Why are autistic workers undervalued?
The negativity surrounding autism probably stems from the general tendency for autistic persons to be extra-sensitive to their surroundings. Such sensitivities can make office environments or work commutes stressful and difficult.
Even the brightness of typical office lights and background noise can add to the discomfort. Therefore, with all this information, hiring managers and employers might regard autistic workers as unreliable, inconvenient, and maybe even a costly and unnecessary expense.
The trouble with these conceptions is they are just not true.
In most cases, autistic people make for brilliant employees who regularly outperform their neuro-typical peers. In addition, as there are literally hundreds of thousands of autistic men and women not working, they currently represent a huge resource of untapped talent.
The unique advantages of autistic ‘neurodiversity’
Autistic people have no shortage of valuable traits and most businesses would jump at the chance to recruit them. If only they knew about them. One trait is that autistic people tend to have very large IQs, and they often have skills in areas where there are already marketplace skills shortages.
Obviously, every autistic person is individual and different, like the whole of society. But together the autistic community generally tends to think in ways that are different from the rest of the population. This is the essence of neurodiversity.
Autistic people process more information and faster than neuro-typical people. This allows them to demonstrate incredible attention to detail, excellent pattern-recognition, and excelled error detection skills, along with a very good logical analysis.
Autistic people also demonstrate what is known as “hyperfocus” or “hyper-systemizing.” Meaning, they can work and concentrate closely on complex projects for lengthy time periods without losing concentration or easily distracted.
There is no denying that hyperfocus is a highly sought after and valuable skill. Particularly within the tech, engineering, and construction industries.
Another big difference is that autistic people tend to consider problems from the bottom up, whereas neuro-typical people tend to start from the top down. While the top-down approach is considered standard, it is often corrupted by confirmation bias and ambiguous conclusions.
The bottom-up approach involves considering all of the information first, before coming to a conclusion. Yes, the bottom-up approach takes more time. But the results are often much better and less biased.
Having a mix of autistic and neuro-typical employees gives managers more options. It allows them to choose whether they want an exact, detailed approach to a problem. Or conversely, a faster and more creative one.
Working with autistic employees
A popular theory in academia is that people with autism have heavier and more interconnected brains. This can greatly enhance cognitive power. The trade-off is that some autistic people can struggle with social interaction.
But with a little training, this does not have to be a problem. Autistic people often require extremely precise communication, with unambiguous and detailed instructions. For example, if you were to show a spreadsheet to a person with autism and ask their opinion on it, they are likely to say something akin to “that is a spreadsheet”.
But if you detail very clearly and specifically what it is you want them to look at and interpret, you will likely be rewarded with a great logical analysis.
This may require some minor training in communication and awareness. But this is an expense that is only likely to benefit all other employees in the business as well. Improved communications between employees is only ever a positive and never an impediment.
Hiring autistic workers, and making your business more neurodiverse
Given the brilliance that autistic people often demonstrate when it comes to cognitive and problem-solving, who wouldn’t want to hire more of them? That being said, it takes a slightly different approach to determine to successfully hire autistic individuals.
Firstly, write your job description in a very clear, precise, and unambiguous way. Remember, autistic candidates need to know exactly what is needed of them to know if they are right for the role.
Second, the standard high-stress job interview process needs to change. They are extra uncomfortable for autistic people because job interviews mostly assess social skills.
To test an autistic individual, it is better to have them non-verbally demonstrate their technical and cognitive skills. You can still ask questions of course. But try to do so informally.
Finally, you may need to make some environmental adjustments to your office or workplace. As a lot of autistic candidates prefer to work in quieter and less bright environments. But most importantly, people with autism need acceptance and some flexibility. Particularly, if the commute at rush hour can make them uncomfortable.
In the greater picture, however, these are all very minor and inexpensive changes to make.
An autistic employee on the team could make a tremendous difference to your business’s problem-solving capabilities, general output, and project deliverance.
Neil Wright is a copywriter and researcher for Webster Wheelchairs, a company that supplies wheelchairs, rollators, and other disability-friendly equipment to companies and health services all over the UK, including the National Health Service.
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